A League Of Their Own

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Music pumps over the loudspeakers, drowning out the cheering fans as the players charge onto the court. All the greats are here: numbers 8, 6, 23. Only this is not Madison Square Garden, and the names above those numbers aren’t Bryant, James, Jordan. This is the Pälolo Valley park gym, and the jerseys displaying the star players’ names read Dar Dar, Two An and Yos.

“Welcome to the opening games of the second annual All-Mike Basketball Tournament!” a hyped-up announcer shouts. Close to four hundred people pack the bleachers: uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and dozens of jubilant toddlers stamping their feet. Then, as at any sporting event, everyone rises for the national anthem—or in this case anthems—one for each of the three island nations represented on the court: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The stakes are high in today’s game: This is the first rematch between last year’s two finalists, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae and Chuuk State. It’s also the first game in a season that runs eight weeks; in that time, twenty teams will play more than ninety games in gymnasiums throughout town, from Pälolo Valley to the University of Hawai‘i’s Klum Gym. But more than bragging rights, the players in these games earn something deeper: a sense of pride in their identity as strangers in a strange land.

Since their inception two years ago, All-Mike men’s basketball and women’s volleyball tournaments have galvanized the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i. Thousands of people showed up to the inaugural season’s basketball championship at the Blaisdell Arena. “The fact that we were there changed a lot of people’s thinking,” says Dr. Wilfred Alik, head of the Micronesian Health Advisory Coalition (MHAC) and co-chair of the tournament. “It’s often a struggle just to gain access to public courts.” Because of the negative stereotypes surrounding Micronesians in Hawai‘i, many thought that playing in a big venue like the Blaisdell would be impossible. “Many were downright scared,” says Alik, “but sitting in the Blaisdell Arena, the feeling—that sense of empowerment— was palpable.” Word spread across the Pacific, and Micronesian pride rippled throughout the islands of Oceania.

“Players want to fly in, the demand is so high,” Alik laughs. “We didn’t have a choice this year. We had to bring the tournament back.”

Micronesians are the newest kids on the block; they began immigrating to Hawai‘i in earnest in 1986, when the United States ratified a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with several Micronesian states. The treaty gave the citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia (comprising Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap) open border access to the United States and granted them access to many of the benefits enjoyed by legal immigrants, including the right to live and work here. The United States in return was granted exclusive military access to the region. Many COFA citizens, particularly those from the Marshall Islands, first came to the United States for health care; between 1946 and 1958, the US military tested nuclear weapons on several of the Marshall Islands—sixtyseven tests in all, the equivalent of 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. The Marshallese, many of whom suffer from radiogenic diseases as a result, comprise the largest segment of the COFA immigrant population in Hawai‘i. Micronesians as a whole remained here, however, for the same reasons most immigrants do: the chance at a better life.

It’s no accident that the largest number of COFA citizens came to Hawai‘i; it’s geographically closer to Micronesia and has an existing Pacific island culture. Because of this, Hawai‘i must pay a lion’s share for the benefits Micronesians receive under the terms of the compact. It costs a hefty $110 million annually to cover the estimated twenty thousand Micronesians in Hawai‘i under the state’s Med-QUEST health plan, which is available to all citizens and legal aliens. State legislators tried to shift that cost to the federal government, reasoning that because health care coverage is mandated by a federal treaty, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to pay for it. However, the state is reimbursed only about 10 percent, which legislators argue constitutes an “unfair burden” on Hawai‘i’s resources. In 2010 Gov. Linda Lingle instituted a $15 million cut to Med-QUEST targeted exclusively at Micronesians. The MHAC sued, and the federal district court ruled in its favor: The cut was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was discriminatory.

All this translates into trouble for Micronesian immigrants trying to fit in. While it’s common for any new immigrant group to suffer discrimination, Micronesians, who make up only 2 percent of the state’s population, have endured more than their share. Some of this is due to rhetoric from the state’s political leaders, rhetoric that has created a widespread perception that Micronesians strain the state’s health care system and contribute nothing in return. Yet while COFA citizens pay state and federal taxes, they remain the only legal immigrants in the country who can never establish residency, vote or receive Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security. “Without those federally funded services,” says Wayne Tanaka, an attorney who has defended the interests of Hawai‘i’s Micronesians, “COFA citizens are basically paying for everyone else’s Social Security, food security and federal public health infrastructure.” Nevertheless, despite the federal court’s ruling against the exclusionary Med-Quest cuts, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has appealed the case.

Which brings us back to basketball: The first All-Mike tournament was launched in response to that appeal, says Alik. “We were looking for ways to raise money to cover the legal fees.” To everyone’s surprise, the greater success was the byproduct: the sense of community and camaraderie that happens on the court. For an immigrant group struggling to assimilate, sports leagues provided a way to belong, a rallying cry.

 

This time around, the second season of All-Mike strives for a higher goal: bringing disparate Pacific island communities together. “We are not ‘Micronesians,’” explains Alik, who calls himself a “citizen of the Marshall Islands.” “People describe us as one ‘Micronesian’ entity, when in fact we are very distant cultures.” Micronesians are divided among two thousand islands making up eight independent entities (the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Northern Mariana Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Guam and Wake Island). Each has its own language and culture.

The All-Mike tournaments serve then as common ground on which geographic and cultural divides are erased in a flurry of sneaker squeaks and sweat. “It’s less about tearing down external stereotypes and more about strengthening pride from within,” says Noda Lojkar, the consul general of the Marshall Islands. To win on the court requires teamwork and collaboration, and basketball seemed a natural place to begin. “Basketball was introduced to the islands in the late ’60s,” explains Alik, “and it’s huge down there. In the Micronesian Olympics it’s one of the biggest events.” Indeed, the poetry of a cross-pivot layup translates well in any language.

In the first quarter of today’s game, defending champs Bang Bang Kosrae trade run-and-gun baskets against Chuuk State’s perimeter jump shots. It’s a physical game yet fouls are nearly nonexistent. Instead of wild elbows, competitors throw high-fives and encouraging whistles. Alik notes that throughout last year’s season there wasn’t a single fight.

“A lot of these players are leaders in their community, and they want to step up,” says Alik. Unlike the old guard of firstgeneration immigrants, “this new generation has been exposed to each other; they are more integrated, more open-minded.” One such player, David Taulung, team captain of Bang Bang Kosrae, often sees firsthand the camaraderie extending offcourt. “It just brings families and friends together,” Taulung says. “We see each other now and talk. We go down to other teams’ courts to play.”

Beyond tearing down social barriers, the sports leagues also provide players a chance to expand their horizons. Taulung, a talented Kaimukï High School grad who led his varsity team to an all-state victory, was selected to play ball in the Micronesian Olympics for Kosrae. “We won the silver medal,” he beams. “Playing basketball got me to travel and represent my country.” It was the first time Taulung had visited his homeland.

Halfway through the third quarter, Chuuk State makes a run, fortifying its defense, boxing out the perimeter and stealing balls. The energy is cheetah level; the players are not only fast and agile but skilled. As the crowd chants from the bleachers, Bang Bang Kosrae’s star point guard Dar Dar throws a gravity-defying block, cross-dribbles around two defenders and lofts a three-pointer. He pumps a victory fist to his fans, and in that moment something shifts. This is no longer just another Saturday afternoon pickup game; this is great basketball.

By the time the buzzer sounds, Bang Bang has secured its victory with a dizzying volley of layups, hook shots and explosive backboard tips. The Chuuk players accept the loss with big smiles and congratulatory hugs. And as the game ends, a wave of toddlers rush the court, screaming at the top of their lungs. Their sweaty fathers swoop them up in their arms, but the kids squirm away—no time for kisses. There’s a loose ball and a basket. And nothing, parent or otherwise, is going to get in their way.

 

King of the Mount

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

The fallow deer seems curious—ears perked, nostrils flared. A chestnut-streaked tassel of hair along its neck stands on end. When Gordon Lau takes a step closer, the deer looks like it might bolt. Maybe it would, if it had feet.

Standing in the small workshop attached to the back of his Halawa Heights house, Lau applies a light sheen of eye shadow above the deer’s glass eye with an airbrush gun. He steps back to survey his work, lowering his thick magnifying glasses, the kind watchmakers wear. “It’s looking better,” Lau assesses. “Almost alive.”

For Lau, one of a handful of professional taxidermists in Hawai‘i and the only one on O‘ahu, the technique of bringing the dead to life is not just a career but a lifelong passion, one that runs in the family. “My grandfather taught me the old-school way,” says Lau of his grandfather Kong Sing Lau, a self-made man who hunted out of necessity to feed his family of ten. Taxidermy followed as an extension of his enterprising nature, a way to extend the profits from a kill. “As a kid I used to love going into his shack, where all the hunters would gather with their animals to be mounted,” Lau recalls. “I loved the stories they would tell about how they caught them. It sparked my imagination. And the whole time I’d help my grandfather skin his game.”

Lau proudly displays his grandfather’s 1925 diploma from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy alongside a snarling collection of Lau’s best work: a black bear in mid-strike, a wild boar with glistening razor tusks. While the years and termites have taken their toll, the yellowing diploma is still Lau’s “most prized possession. My grandfather would be happy to know that I took over,” says Lau. “This is what he wanted me to do.”

For many people, taxidermy carries a connotation of the grotesque or bizarre. Like undertakers or morticians, anyone who voluntarily works in close quarters with death is often associated with society’s fringe. “I’m always a little leery of telling people what I do,” Lau admits, “because when they hear, they think I’m some kind of maniac.” Perhaps for this reason it’s all the more surprising to find Lau so affable and sincere—an introvert, yes, but also a gracious and affectionate family man, the kind who marks his kids’ height on the door frame and leaves the marks well after the kids are grown. And he’s understated about his work: “He’s very modest,” says his wife, Leona. “He doesn’t like to advertise, but when you watch him work, you can see the care and pride he puts in. Every hair has to be precise.”

When it comes to taxidermy, you have only one shot to get it right. Once an animal is mounted, it becomes a statue, forever locked in place. It helps then to be both a perfectionist and crackerjack zoologist— a professional observer of animals. Lau will spend hours analyzing the exact number of wrinkles on a growling boar’s snout. “I study the way they look around and position themselves,” Lau says as he adjusts a tendon in the deer’s cheek. “I try to do the best job I can to be naturalistic.”

That’s much easier said than done, especially when dealing with the kills Island hunters leave at Lau’s front door. Lau’s often up late into the night, measuring cadavers, skinning capes, extracting and cleaning skulls. “You don’t want to walk out there at midnight,” Leona quips. A carpenter by trade, Lau bears the muscular, knotted-rope physique of a Shaolin monk and approaches his tasks with the same fastidious dedication. He rises at 5:30 a.m. and works until he’s beat, usually around midnight. When he’s not in his shop, Lau likes to hit the trails behind his house. A former director of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, he’ll clock upward of eighty miles a week—mud, rain or shine. “Just look at him,” Leona exhorts, positioning Lau next to a fierce-looking mountain buck. “My old billy goat.”

As a young man Lau spent his formative years in intimate proximity with animals. The Lau family had ranches on the Big Island and chicken farms in Nanakuli, so death was part of everyday life. “I grew up taking care of those chickens,” Lau reflects, “and when they got mature, I’d have to kill and clean them. Gore and guts were just part of my childhood.” His later love for taxidermy evolved naturally from his love for the wilderness. A prize-winning bowhunter, Lau has spent most of his life in the mountains, raising dogs to hunt invasive mammals such as wild boar, axis deer and Mouflon sheep. “When we first met, he took me hunting,” Leona recalls. “That was kinda our thing.” Lau’s hunting days are now largely behind him, but he views the practice as necessary, one that’s even supported by the State of Hawai‘i. Like most local hunters, he targets only introduced species that threaten Hawai‘i’s native flora and fauna.

The word taxidermy is derived from two ancient Greek words: taxis, meaning movement; and derma, meaning skin. In the 1800s the first taxidermists were upholsterers who plumped up dead animals with cotton and rags so that they reassumed their original shape and size. They sold these stiff and expressionless “stuffed animals” as toys for children or as statement pieces for men of a certain class. Modern taxidermists look back on such practices disdainfully, and if you dare refer to their finished work as “stuffed” (the proper term is “mounted”), you risk ending up with your head on their wall. Visit any natural history museum in the world, and you’ll see the level of craftsmanship to which Lau aspires: perfectly mounted flying squirrels frozen midflight, a pride of lions attacking a wildebeest or a group of antelope quietly grazing the savannah.

Lau first experienced this still-life dynamism in the shop of George Lee, Hawai‘i’s premier taxidermist, who ran a store off Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu for over fifty years. “When I was young I used to go in there and just be amazed.” Being able to walk right up to a bobcat and touch it, Lau remembers thinking, “Wow, this is better than the zoo!”

Taxidermy at this level of artistry is an exhausting process, not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. As Lau explains how it’s done, he unwraps a once majestic red stag from a large plastic bag. Known as the “king’s trophy” for being the preferred game of British nobility, it’s been shipped to Lau from a local hunter on safari in Australia. It looks today less than regal—more like roadkill. There are numerous, painstaking steps to transforming this freeze-dried carcass into a lifelike trophy. First there’s the fleshing, which involves removing the hide with a paring knife. “Call me crazy, but I love this part,” Lau laughs. “It’s so peaceful.” Next the hide is detoxified in a pickle bath. Then comes the longest stage: tanning and drying, which can take up to three months. “A lot of people send their animals to Mainland tanneries, and they come back dry and full of holes. I like to do my own tanning.” Because not every animal is the same size, Lau orders a custom epoxy mannequin over which he mounts the skin. Lau molds the mannequin into the desired pose, applying sinews of clay to the synthetic bone. This stage requires both a sculptor’s imagination and a surgeon’s understanding of anatomy. Once the cast is ready, Lau applies glue, pulls the skin taut and hand-stitches the hide together. “You have be an artist to do this,” Lau says. “You gotta know how to manipulate the skin and the clay, how to mix and blend colors, how to airbrush. … It’s meticulous work.”

Depending on the size and condition of the animal, mounting can take anywhere from three months to a year. And while a boar’s foot ashtray (a specialty item of Lau’s) might cost as little as $75, a full boar or grizzly bear can run as high as several thousand dollars. With more than thirteen million recreational hunters and over one hundred thousand registered taxidermists in the United States alone, taxidermy is estimated today to be a half-billion- dollar industry—less fringe than one might think. Still, despite the burgeoning conventions, trade magazines and websites—where professionals trade tips on rehydrating a coyote face or how to shampoo a bear—the industry is comprised mostly of small operators like Lau.

Inside his spotless workshop a Malakin cockatoo, a Namibian kudu and a black buck stand guard beside the deer and wild boars. The cockatoo belonged to a wealthy matron who wanted to see her pet bird fly one last time; the black buck’s herd escaped a private zoo and proceeded to ravage Lana‘i’s native forest; and the African kudu crossed three continents and two oceans to reach Lau’s door. Stuffed in a shockingly small cooler, thirty more animals await reanimation. In a high corner tucked beneath the corrugated tin roof, a dozen antlers hang out to dry. Lau takes down two pairs: a small one covered in downy velvet, a larger one twisted and battle-scarred. “Guys always go for the biggest rack,” Lau deadpans.

In his living room hangs a painting of a Native American archer, bow taut, arrow aimed at a wild pheasant. Apart from his mounts, it’s the only art in his house— a reflection of Lau’s sense of belonging to an ancient order. “Sometimes I wish I was born in those days,” he reflects. “There was a kinship with nature you don’t get nowadays.” As Lau applies a light sheen of linseed oil to the fallow deer’s antlers, a mosquito lands on its neck. A second later it zips away, probably disappointed and confused. Even the deer seems to regard Lau quizzically, as though startled to again be alive. Lau rubs its muzzle tenderly. It might seem ironic to those who do not hunt that someone can have such deep, almost spiritual reverence for the creatures he has killed or those he mounts, but to Lau there’s no contradiction. “In my way I try to give honor to the animal,” he says, “to bring back pride.”

Brothers in Fire

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

At first there is only darkness broken by the steady beat of a lalidrum. Another lali joins the rhythm, then five more, the noise building like slow-rolling thunder until, in an instant, it stops. Suddenly a blue and ghostly flame lights the stage as Viavia “VJ” Tiumalu holds aloft a nifo oti knife, its hooked tip on fire. With his naked palm, he drags the flame down the length of the steel blade, setting it ablaze. Then the defending world fireknife champion raises it high like a warrior of old, lets out a wild cry and begins to dance.

Let’s be clear: This is not your grandfather’s fireknife dancing. You may think you know all about those twirling rings of fire—perhaps you’ve seen them at a lu‘au, in a Cirque du Soleil show, even in Lilo and Stitch—but until you’ve witnessed the dancing at the World Fireknife Championship, you haven’t seen the best. The event, which takes place over four nights every May at the Polynesian Cultural Center on O‘ahu’s North Shore, has grown to become the Olympics of the fireknife dancing world. In 2012 the championship marked its twentieth anniversary and welcomed more than forty professional dancers who’d come from all over the globe. The ones to beat: Rex and VJ Tiumalu from Orlando, 2011’s defending champions, Rex in the intermediate division, VJ overall. Only this year there was a twist: with Rex now old enough to qualify for the overall division, 2012 marked the first time the brothers would compete against each other … and both were determined to win.

With their powerful bodies and their long hair pulled into matching buns, the Tiumalu brothers look much the same—but the similarities mostly end there. “We’re close in our dancing but not in anything else,” Rex confides as he and VJ recline together pre-competition on a lauhala mat in a thatched fale (house) in the PCC’s Samoan Village. “Outside the stage we are very different people. I’m outgoing and VJ is very serious.” As if to highlight this, Rex breaks away to greet a rival dancer while VJ stays seated. Only two years older than his 18-year-old brother, he radiates an intensity far removed from Rex’s boisterous charm. “We are brothers,” VJ concurs, “but we very much stand alone.”

On the first two nights of the 2012 competition, the Tiumalu brothers’ routines come just minutes apart, Rex taking the stage before VJ in both rounds. Every dancer has a different style — some are more fluid, some flashy, some fierce. Rex casts himself in that last mold: “You have to come out furious. It’s not a baton-twirling competition. It’s not a circus act. This is a Samoan warrior dance.” He launches into his act, his knife a blurred spinning circle of fire that he tosses seamlessly from hand to hand. “I try to dance like I’m fighting someone in battle,” he says. His dream is to one day become another Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and when he isn’t dancing, he’s training in his uncle’s wrestling school. “Performance is my passion,” Rex asserts.

VJ follows shortly after with a more muted and mesmerizing routine. He doesn’t leap or tumble; his dance is smooth and fast, with nothing forced or strained. Ambidextrous, VJ can spin two knives in opposite directions simultaneously, a feat no one else can match. “Rex puts more anger into his dance,” VJ says. “For me it just flows. Once I get my knife spinning, it’s like it won’t stop.”

It was that unique ability that set VJ apart in the competition in 2011 and won him the world title—and this year it sends him sailing into this competition’s final three. Rex, though, does not advance. Offstage the elder Tiumalu remains modest, moving and speaking with a languor that’s in direct contrast to the velocity with which he performs. “For me it isn’t just about winning,” VJ says. “I want people to learn about our culture, where we come from.”

One of the people the Tiumalu brothers have inspired is Preston Weber, who also hails from Florida. Just 13, Preston has won every fireknife dance competition he’s entered, and in 2012 he became the youngest dancer ever to win the PCC’s intermediate division, taking the title Rex won the year before. Preston is largely self-taught and was the only non-Polynesian in competition. “People tell me I’ve made the record books because I’m the first full Caucasian to ever win,” shrugs Preston the night after being crowned. Given that the dance is so deeply rooted in Samoan heritage, his win is no small feat. And both Rex and VJ, who occasionally mentor the young champ back in Florida, see this as a good thing.

“Preston is a perfect example of how fireknife dancing inspires many kids,” says VJ. “To have him represent our culture only makes it stronger.”

Though fireknife dancing today draws from modern innovations in martial arts and acrobatics, its origins date back to a time eons ago when Samoan chiefs waged war on neighboring villages. The traditional ailao dance was an intimidation routine, much like the Maori haka, performed before battle by Samoan warriors to demonstrate their prowess to their enemies. The skill with which a fighter could swing his nifo oti war club in the dance delivered a lethal warning of the doom foes would face in combat.

The ailao afi—the ailao with the addition of flame—was created five thousand miles from its island roots. In 1946 Uluao Letuli, a young dancer from American Samoa, was performing his knife routine in Golden Gate Park when he was inspired by a fellow performer, a Hindu fire-eater. Borrowing some fuel, Letuli, who was nicknamed “Freddie” for his Astaire-like dance moves, wrapped a towel around his blade and set it on fire. “I did not dream that the fire knife dance would become so widespread,” Letuli writes in his biography, Flaming Sword of Samoa: The Story of the Fire Knife Dance. Yet it did, in no small measure thanks to Letuli himself, who performed his dance in movies and TV shows and on live stages all over the world. For forty years until his passing in 2003, Letuli taught fireknife to thousands of future dancers.

One of Letuli’s students was Viavia Tiumalu Sr., a lead fireknife dancer at the long-running Makahiki Luau at SeaWorld Orlando, who literally passed the torch to his sons. “We practically grew up onstage,” VJ recalls. “When we were little, we used to sit on the side every day,” Rex chimes in, “and watch while our mom danced Tahitian and our dad danced fire.” Today the two brothers continue the family tradition, both performing professionally in that same SeaWorld show. “If it wasn’t for our parents, we’d probably be playing Nintendo,” Rex jokes. “They really pushed us to become the dancers we are today.” But even though these siblings live and work together, they make it a point to always perform apart. “We alternate days,” Rex explains. “I don’t want VJ to see what I’m doing, and he doesn’t want to see me.” VJ frames their competitiveness in a more intense light: “Even though we’re cool with each other, when we’re on stage we’re there to kill each other.”

You don’t need to know a great deal about fireknife dancing to understand its danger. To dance with fire—to place a flaming knife on your bare feet or tap hot steel to the end of your tongue—is to deny fear and pain. “All firedancers get burned,” Rex shrugs, showing off the scorched black blister on his hand where he caught his knife wrong in the semifinals. VJ exposes the burn scars on his thigh, a souvenir from the time his grass skirt caught fire. “I was out four months with second-degree burns. I looked like Frankenstein with dead skin hanging off my legs.” Rex points to a thin pink scar encircling his throat. “I spun the blade around and it slashed me right here. It’s something you love but you get hurt for it.”

Beyond the flames, the hooked lave— or “tooth of death”—is always exposed. And competition knives must be sharpened and inspected to keep in line with the tradition of the war dance. “The knife originally was a weapon,” says VJ, “with the lave used to cut the opponent’s head off. After the battle you would carry your enemy’s head back on the hook to show the king.” That’s the reason why today dropping your knife in competition results in a dreaded three-point deduction. “You can’t let go of the knife,” PCC judge Vaitu‘u Kaio stresses. It signifies a fatal mistake. “You’re there as a warrior to protect your family, your country. Once you drop it, you’re dead.”

As VJ takes center stage on the final night of competition, the sold-out 2,700-seat theater erupts in applause. The 2011 champ looks fated to win again this year … until the unthinkable happens. In the last seconds of his nearly flawless final routine, he drops his knife. The same mistake that eliminated his brother Rex in the semis tonight costs VJ the crown and puts him in third place.

Immediately after the winner, Joseph Cadousteau of Tahiti, is announced, the former champ stands backstage, looking like a marathon runner just over the finish line. “I’ve never been more tired in my life,” VJ admits with a hangdog smile. But in the next moment he’s swarmed by a pack of exuberant adolescent boys, all angling for a photo op. And in the next breath he vows to return. “I’m proud to represent a tradition so far removed from its roots in Samoa. It isn’t just about the dance. We do this to inspire future generations so our culture doesn’t disappear.”

As for each other, VJ and Rex come away from this year’s World Fireknife Championship with newfound mutual respect. “I’m not even saying this because he’s my brother, but VJ to me is ahead of everybody,” Rex gushes. VJ echoes the praise: “To tell you the truth, I think Rex is better than me—one of the best fireknife dancers I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother.”

Ilha De Deus — God’s Island

by twinink on September 4, 2012

(This article appeared in Surfing Magazine — October 2012)

Somewhere between the iron wing and sputtering propeller blade, the craggy peak of Morro do Pico emerges from the sea, verdant, shrouded in clouds. Soft rain descends everywhere — and then ceases — revealing an island seven miles long by 15 beaches wide, with perfect pearls of oyster sand surrounded by the Middle of a Nowhere Sea.

You’ve heard the name before, maybe echoed in the hazy penumbra of sleep. Or on the lips of that Brazilian girl, the one in your summer photography class whose mouth tasted of saltwater and whose hips, when you pressed your ear to them, roared with the hollow promise of an unsurfed sandbar.  Fernando. Always whispered.  De Noronha. An incantation. Promise of perfection.

“Here is paradise,” explorer Amerigo Vespucci proclaimed upon landing in 1504, long before the swarms of borrachudo mosquitoes and capirinha sucking tourists appeared.

Forget the Maldives, Bali, the 50 perfect pointbreaks to visit before you die. Throw your dream vacation list inside your bucket list and light the whole thing on fire. Noronha is that black dot at the bottom off an explanation point. The lost garden glinting in a sapphire sea.

Not God’s country, but where, on his eighth day, God came to retire.

-Aaron Kandell

Pride and Produce

by twinink on September 4, 2012

(This article appeared in Land&People Magazine — Spring/Summer 2012)

Storming the Beach

by twinink on September 4, 2012

(This article appeared in United Airlines Hemispheres Magazine — July 2012)

Senior Scrummers

by twinink on September 4, 2012

(This article appeared in the Aug-Sep 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Photo by Elyse Butler

There’s a saying among professional ruggers: “Rugby is a thug sport played by gentlemen.” To the uninitiated, the game looks like a violent mishmash of American football, soccer and good old-fashioned street brawl. It’s not for the weak or elderly, only the toughest of men. Still, for the aging scrummer, nothing gets the old ticker pumping more than running a ball down a field of would-be tacklers sans helmet or pads. Which is why this September 23 through 30, forty-five gray-haired teams from twelve countries will descend on Kapi‘olani Park in Waikiki for the kickoff of the fifth World Vintage Rugby Carnival.

The tournament, which is held in a different city every two years (the last was in Cape Town, South Africa), was born in response to a growing demand from older athletes for a not quite full-contact game. Vintage Rugby offers players of all nationalities and fitness levels a chance to relive their glory days without risk of mutilation. There are two age divisions, one for 35 to 45 and one for 46 and over. To ensure that play favors gentlemen over thugs, athletes 65 and older wear a bright red vest to prevent them from being tackled: A firm and manly hug is all an opponent may do to stop their forward progress. Which is just fine, because there aren’t any bragging rights at stake. “The emphasis at each carnival is on enjoyment,” says director Paul Gleeson, “so there are no winners and no scores kept. It’s all about honoring the game and honoring each other.”

For the old-timers, who prove you’re never too old for a mauling, Vintage Rugby is all in good fun. Hence the team names: the Cracked Conchs (Bahamas), the Creaky Ol’ Convicts (Norfolk Island) and the Toothless Gators (Queensland). And while this might be a slightly kinder, gentler rugby than the pounding you’re likely to see at a World Cup match, players won’t be holding back altogether: At the end of the day, rugby wouldn’t be rugby without a few bruises to show off like medals.

Nor, of course, would it be a real rugby match without a beer garden—set up close enough that the weary warriors and their fans needn’t drag themselves too far for a postgame pint.

vintagerugby.com

One Breath

by twinink on September 3, 2012

(This article appeared in Ola Magazine — 2012)


Bazaar of the Bizarre

by twinink on September 3, 2012

(This article appeared in the April-May 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

Photo by Olivier Koning

In a Dan Brown novel, a brass skeleton key, a Belgian angel and a vintage Bible stand would be clues leading to a secret treasure. For Mark Pei and Travis Flazer, such curios are the treasure.

Pei and Flazer opened Hound & Quail a year ago; it’s not your typical antique shop. “We wanted to present a museum of curiosity, where every piece pops out,” Flazer explains. In the same way a hound hunts a quail, Pei and Flazer sniff out the rare and quirky all over the world, including the antique bell jars and glass terrariums in which the wares are displayed. Pei, who daylights as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot, might acquire a 1940s Dutch anatomy poster at an estate sale in Pasadena one day and an antique set of roller skates at a Tokyo swap meet the next. “We look for things that are unusual, things people wouldn’t normally pick,” says Flazer.

With floor-to-ceiling windows fronting busy Kapi‘olani Boulevard, the store itself is in a way its own glass display case. Stepping inside is like walking into Edgar Allen Poe’s private study: a stuffed partridge perched on a branch, a bat skeleton entombed in glass, a leather horse statue in mid-stride, buffalo horn pen quills, vintage holy water vials, even a jar of hair pomade from the 1950s—to name just a few of many oddities. You’ll also find retro furniture by famous names like Eames and Miller, restored by Pei and Flazer themselves.

It’s little wonder Hound & Quail attracts an eclectic clientele, from bargain hunters to architecture students to the set designers of Hawaii Five-0. Even the store’s hours are quirky: open only Mondays from 5 to 8 p.m., with a monthly market on announced Saturdays (check the web site).

As the proverb goes, “Seek and ye shall find,” but seek with alacrity—if you miss your chance, you won’t get another. “Almost everything in here is one-of-a-kind. There is no duplicate,” says Pei. “Once it’s bought, it’s gone.”

houndandquail.com

Happiest men alive — at the Maui Film Festival

by aaron on February 9, 2012

We premiered our short at the 2010 Maui Film Festival